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Burning Sands, Page 2

Arthur E. P. Brome Weigall


  Lord Blair rose from his chair as the door opened, and removed from histhin, furtive nose a pair of large horn-rimmed spectacles which healways wore when quite alone in his study.

  "Come in, come in, my dear Mr. Lane," he exclaimed, taking a few blithesteps forward and shaking his visitor warmly by the hand. "I'm verywell, thank you, very well indeed, and so are you, I see. That's right,that's good,--splendid! Dear me, what physique! What a picture ofhealth! How did you get here so quickly?--do take a seat, do be seated.Yes, yes, to be sure! Have a cigar? Now, where did I put my cigars?"

  He pushed a leather arm-chair around, so that it faced his own deskchair, and began at once to hunt for his cigar-box, lifting andreplacing stacks of papers and books, glancing rapidly, like some sortof rodent, around the room, and then again searching under his papers.

  "Thanks," said Daniel Lane, "I'll smoke my pipe, if it won't make yousick."

  "Tut, tut!" Lord Blair laughed, extending his delicate hands in acomprehensive gesture. "I sometimes smoke a pipe myself: I enjoy it. Agood, honest, English smoke! Dear me, where _are_ my cigars?"

  Lord Blair was a little man of somewhat remarkableappearance--remarkable, that is to say, when considered in relation tohis historic name and excellent diplomatic record. In a company ofelderly club waiters he would, on superficial observation, have passedunnoticed. He bore very little resemblance to his daughter; and, infact, he was often disposed to believe his late wife's declaration, madewhenever she desired to taunt him, that Muriel was no child of his. LadyBlair had had many lovers; and it is notorious that twenty odd years agoin Mayfair there was an exceptionally violent epidemic of adultery.

  He himself had thin auburn hair, now nearly grey, neatly parted in themiddle; nervous, quick-moving brown eyes; closely cut 'mutton-chop'whiskers; an otherwise clean-shaven, sharp-featured face; and a widemouth, furnished with two somewhat apparent rows of false teeth. Hissmile was kindly and gracious, and his expression, in spite of a certainvigilance, mild.

  The evening dress which he was now wearing was noteworthy in fourparticulars: his collar was so big for him that one might suppose that,in moments of danger, his head totally disappeared into it; his bow-tiewas exceptionally wide and large; his links and studs were, as suchthings go, enormous; and the legs of his trousers were cut so tightly asto be bordering on the comic. In other respects there was nothingstriking in his appearance, except, perhaps, a general cleanliness,almost a fastidiousness, especially to be noticed in the polishedsurface of his chin and jaw, and in his carefully manicuredfinger-nails.

  Daniel Lane pulled out his pipe and began to fill it from a worn oldpouch. "Please don't bother about cigars," he said, as Lord Blairextended his hand towards the bell. "Tell me why you sent for me. Yourletter was brought over from El Homra by a nigger corporal of yourprecious frontier-patrol, who nearly lamed his camel in trying to do thethirty miles in under four hours. My Bedouin friends thought at the veryleast that the King of England was dying and wished to give me hisblessing."

  "Dear, dear!--it was not so urgent as all that," his Lordship replied."I told them to mark the letter "Express," but I trust, I do trust, themessage itself was not peremptory."

  "Not at all," the other replied. "I was mighty glad of an excuse to comeinto Cairo; I wanted to do some shopping; and there was another reasonalso. A young cousin of mine--in the Guards--has come to Cairo, with hisregiment, and I ought to see him about some family business. I shouldprobably have let it slide if you hadn't sent for me. Tell me, what'syour trouble?"

  "Ah, that's the point!--you always come to the point quickly. It'scapital, capital!" Lord Blair leaned forward and tapped his friend'sknee with a sort of affection. "I don't know where I should be withoutyour advice, Mr. Lane--Daniel: may I call you Daniel?"

  "Sure," said Daniel, laconically.

  "When I came here two years ago, my predecessor said to me 'When indoubt, send for Daniel Lane.' Do you remember how worried, indeed howshaken--yes, I may say shaken--I was by the Michael Pasha affair? Howyou laughed! Dear me, you were positively rude to me; and how right youwere! Personally I should have had him deported: it never occurred to meto convert him into a friend."

  His visitor smiled. "'Bind a brave enemy with the chains ofabsolution,'" he said.

  "Yes, yes, very true," replied Lord Blair, still hunting about for thecigars. "Very true, very daring: a policy for brave men." He startedinto rigidity, as though at a sudden thought: one might have supposedthat he had recollected where he had put the cigars. "Daniel!" heexclaimed, "you bring with you an air of the mediaeval! That's it! Onealways forgets that Egypt is mediaeval."

  Daniel blew a cloud of oriental tobacco-smoke through his nostrils, atwhich his host frenziedly renewed his search for the less pungentcigars. "About this business you want to ask my advice upon ...?" heasked.

  "Ah yes, you must be tired," his Lordship murmured. "You want to go tobed after your long ride. Let me put you up here. I'll ring and have aroom prepared."

  "No thanks," said Daniel, firmly. "I've left my kit at the Orient Hotel.But fire away, and I'll give you my opinion either at once or in themorning."

  Lord Blair laid his thin fingers upon a document, and handed it to hisfriend. "Read that," he said, and therewith leaned back in his chair,his dark eyes glancing anxiously about the room.

  The document was written in Arabic, and beneath the flowing script asecretary had pencilled an English translation. "The translation isappended," remarked his Lordship, as Daniel bent forward to study thepaper in the light of the electric reading-lamp.

  "I prefer the original," he replied, with a smile, "I don't trusttranslations: they lose the spirit."

  For some considerable time there was silence. Suddenly Lord Blair rosefrom his chair, and hurried across to a cupboard, from which he returnedbearing in triumph the missing cigars. He proffered them to his visitor,who, without raising his eyes, took one, smelt it, and put it in hisbreast pocket.

  At length, through a cloud of smoke, Daniel looked up. "The man's afool," he said, and laid the paper back upon the table.

  "You think I ought to refuse?" asked Lord Blair.

  "No, procrastinate. That's the basis of diplomacy, isn't it?"

  The document in question was a request made by the Egyptian Minister ofWar that the nomadic Bedouin tribes of the desert should be broughtunder the Conscription Act, from which, until now, they had been exempt.

  "I ventured to ask you to come in," said his Lordship, "because I amsure, indeed I know, you have the interests of these rascals at heart. Ithought you would wish to be consulted; and at the same time I felt thatyou would be able to tell me just what the consequences would be of anyaction of this kind."

  Daniel nodded. "Yes, I can tell you the consequences," he answered. "Ifyou conscribe them, they will evade the law by all possible means, andyou will turn honest men into law-breakers."

  "But, as you see, he suggests that it will bring the benefits ofdiscipline into their lives," Lord Blair argued. "And if some of themescape across the frontiers into Arabia or Tripoli, it will be, surelyit will be, no great loss to Egypt."

  Daniel spread out his hands. "What is military discipline?" he asked."Good Lord!--d'you think the Bedouin will be better men for havinglearnt to form fours and present arms? Will barrack life in dirty citiesbring them some mystic benefit which they have missed in the open spacesof the clean desert? Don't you realize that it is just their freedomfrom the taint of what we call civilization that gives them theirparticular good qualities? Why is it that the man of the desert isfaithful and honourable and truthful? Because time and money and powerand ambition and success and cunning are nothing to him. Because he isnot herded with other men."

  He leant forward earnestly. "Lord Blair," he said, and his voice wasgrave, "hasn't the thought ever come to you that we civilized people,with our rules and regulations, our etiquette and our conventions, havebuilt up a structure which screens us from the face of
the sun?"

  "Ah, yes, indeed, my dear Daniel," he replied. "Back to the land: thesimple life: Fresh Air Fund--a capital sentiment. But, you know, I amvery anxious, most anxious, not to offend this particular minister--mostanxious."

  His visitor relapsed into silence, and the volume of smoke which issuedfrom his mouth was some indication that he had much to say which hepreferred to leave unsaid.

  At length he took the pipe from between his teeth. "You had better fixyour frontiers first," he declared. "There'll be a fine old row ifEgyptian patrols blunder into foreign territory. There's your chance forprocrastination. Send out a commission to settle the desert frontiersdefinitely. That'll keep you all wrangling comfortably for five years."

  "Ah!--that is an idea, a very good idea," replied Lord Blair, bringingthe tips of the fingers of one hand against those of the other sharplyand repeatedly.

  "Write to the minister," Daniel went on, "and tell him you don'taltogether agree with him, but that you will consent to the preliminarystep of fixing the frontiers. Before that's accomplished you may both bedead."

  "I trust not, I trust not," murmured Lord Blair.

  "Or retired," said his friend; and his Lordship nodded his thanks forthe correction.

  It was not long before Daniel rose to take his departure. "Oh, by theway," he said, with a broad smile, "I have one little favor to askyou...."

  "Certainly, certainly," responded Lord Blair warmly. "Anything I can do,I'm sure--anything. You have put me under a great obligation by comingso promptly to my aid in this matter."

  "Well, will you be so good as to walk as far as your front gate with me?There's something I want to show you."

  Lord Blair, somewhat mystified, accompanied him on to the veranda; andhere they chanced upon Lady Muriel again taking the air with RupertHelsingham who was once more her partner. The couple were strollingtowards them as they came out of the house.

  Daniel made for the steps. "What I want you to see is over here," hesaid, pointing to the gateway.

  "One moment," Lord Blair interjected, taking hold of his arm. "I want tointroduce you to my daughter."

  He called Muriel to him, who replied somewhat coldly that she hadalready met Mr. Lane.

  "Really?" exclaimed his Lordship. "Splendid, capital!"

  "Yes," said Daniel, taking his pipe out of his mouth, "when she wasquite a kid; but I'm blest if I know where it was."

  He was standing again almost with his back to Muriel, his pipe betweenhis teeth, and once more a sense of annoyance entered her mind. Shewould have liked to pinch him, but for all she knew he might turn roundand fling her into the middle of the drive. She racked her brains forsomething to say, something which would show him that she was not to beignored in this fashion.

  "Ah," she exclaimed suddenly, "now I remember. It was in the Highlandsthat we met. You came over to tea with us: I was staying with my cousinthe Duchess of Strathness."

  Daniel scratched his head. "I'm so bad at names," he said. "What's shelike?"

  Lord Blair uttered a sudden guffaw, but Muriel did not treat the matterso lightly. A man with gentlemanly instincts, she thought to herself,would at any rate _pretend_ he remembered.

  "Oh, why bother to think it out?" she answered, her foot ominouslytapping the floor. "It's of no consequence."

  "None," Daniel replied, looking at her with his steady laughing eyes."You're still you, and I'm still I.... But I did like your pigtails."

  Muriel turned to her partner, who stood anxiously fiddling with hiseyeglass. "Come along," she said; "let's go back. The music's begunagain."

  She nodded with decided coolness to Daniel, and turned away. He gazedafter her in silence for a moment; then he put his hand on her father'sarm, and gently propelled him towards the gates.

  As they walked down the drive in the moonlight, the sentry peered atthem through the iron bars, and, recognizing Lord Blair, suddenlypresented arms, becoming thereat a very passable imitation of a waxworkfigure.

  Lord Blair put his arm in Daniel's. "What is it you wanted to show me?"he asked, as they passed through the gate and stood upon the pavementoutside.

  "A good soldier," said Daniel, indicating the sentry, whose face assumedan expression of mingled anxiety and astonishment. "I wanted to callyour attention to this lad. Do you think you could put in a word for himto his colonel? I was very much struck this evening with the way inwhich he dealt with a ruffianly tramp who apparently wanted to get intothe grounds. He showed great self-restraint combined with determinationand devotion to duty." There was not the trace of a smile upon his face.

  Lord Blair turned to the rigid Scotchman, whose mouth had fallen open."What's your name, my man?" he asked.

  "John Macdonald, me Lord," he answered unsteadily.

  "Now, will you make a note of it?" said Daniel. "And if you get achance, recommend him for his soldierly conduct. Or, better still, sendhim a little present as a mark of your regard."

  "Certainly, certainly," replied Lord Blair, still somewhat puzzled.

  "Thanks, that's all," said Daniel. "Good-night."

  "Will you come to luncheon tomorrow?" Lord Blair asked, as they shookhands. "I will then show you the draft of my reply to the Minister ofWar."

  "Thank you," Daniel answered, knocking the ashes from his pipe. "I'll bedelighted, if it isn't a party. I haven't got any respectable clotheswith me."

  "Tut, tut!" murmured his Lordship. "Come in anything you like." And withthat he patted his friend on the arm, and hastened with little trippingsteps back to the house.

  Daniel put his hands in his pockets and faced the sentry, who was oncemore standing at ease. "John Macdonald," he said, "is the accountsquare?"

  The Scotchman looked at him with a twinkle in his eye. "Ye mus' na'speak tae th' sentry on duty," he answered.

  Daniel uttered a chuckle, and walked off across the square.